A former council manager who tried making Tauranga’s Memorial Park water fountain safer more than 20 years ago believes “something has to be done” after a child died in it at the weekend.
Geoff Canham’s comments follow a young child’s drowning in Memorial Park’s fountain on Sunday. Police said emergency services responded about 9.50am and found an unresponsive child. CPR was started but the child could not be revived.
A woman who was there at the time of the tragedy says she has witnessed other children get into difficulty at the park’s fountain and says it should no longer be in use.
In 2002, a child nearly drowned in the fountain - sparking a Tauranga City Council staff proposal to reduce the depth at the centre of the fountain by introducing a two-layer concrete ring.
The safety improvements were said at the time to cost $20,000.
But the council decided not to proceed.
Canham, a former council facilities and reserves manager, told the Bay of Plenty Times he believed that if the fountain safety proposal in 2002 had happened, “it might have changed things”.
“We put forward a number of things at the time because I was very worried it wouldn’t be the only time something like that happened,” he said, referring to the child that nearly drowned in 2002.
One of the proposals was to reduce the depth. “I think if that had been done, it might have changed things to have a much shallower fountain”.
He said the proposal was not supported because “it was a money decision”.
Other options included filling it in completely or putting less water in.
People at the time argued “it’s all about parental supervision”, that the harbour was nearby which was also a water hazard, and that a child could also drown in “a very little” amount of water, he recalled.
But he believed it would have still been a “reasonable reaction” because even though the council could not stop children from getting into the fountain, it would be safer to make it “toe-depth”.
He said some signs went up but they did not last long.
He said the fountain was treated like a swimming pool because it was chlorinated and there was a general assumption that “it’s safe to get into”.
Sunday’s tragedy was “absolutely awful”. He hoped safety improvements to the fountain would be part of the master plan for Memorial Park.
“Something has to be done. It’s a hazard.
“Yes, we’ve got lots of things like harbours, seashores and coastlines, but in our parks, there’s a number of water hazards that need further thinking about.”
An August 14, 2002, report by the Bay of Plenty Times said a witness saw a toddler floating in the fountain.
He saw someone who he assumed was the child’s mother jump and pull the child out.
After the incident, the council put up signs prohibiting swimming in the fountain - and was reported to be considering fencing the fountain off.
Canham said at the time that “we need to manage what is clearly a risk”.
“But it is difficult to improve [safety] if an unattended child goes swimming in the middle of winter.’’
Options considered for the fountain included fencing it in or pouring a new concrete floor to make it shallow.
However, two months later, on October 30, the Bay of Plenty Times reported that the council’s monitoring committee, by a majority, rejected staff recommendations suggesting $20,000 be spent on the proposal to reduce the 765mm depth at the centre of the fountain to just 400mm by introducing a two-layer concrete ring.
A woman who was at Memorial Park when the child drowned on Sunday has seen other children get into difficulty at the park’s fountain and said it should no longer be in use.
The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she would not discuss Sunday’s tragedy out of respect for the family, but said she had seen “so many” near-misses in the fountain.
This included a past incident where a young boy went completely under and she had to jump in fully clothed to save him.
She said the fountain should no longer be used due to safety risks and at the very least major safety improvements were needed.
The park was quiet on Sunday morning with only about three or four families there, she said.
“When I walked into the park in the morning, before it all happened, I looked at the fountain and thought, ‘Gosh, it looks beautiful with the sun in the background’.
“It looked picturesque. I can imagine a child just going, ‘Wow, I want to see that.’”
The woman said the fountain flooring was slippery and the depth was deceptive.
She said it was shallow, around ankle depth, and got deep in the middle which is not visible on the side. It was enough for a child to quickly get into trouble as they ran and slipped into the water.
She said she had also jumped in after her children on other occasions and both she and the children had slipped over. At the very least, the bottom needed to be gritted to make it less slippery. She said it would also be safer if the depth was levelled out.
“To be honest, I’d like for it to not operate ever again ... I’ve just seen so many times where kids have gone under.”
“All I want is to see the fountain is safer from now on if they’re going to continue using it ... I don’t think they should.”
In response, the Tauranga City Council said in a statement that it had emptied the fountain and temporary fencing had been put in place until further notice.
The council would also undertake a safety review of the fountain. It referred any further media inquiries to police or the Coroner’s office.
Flowers have been placed on the fence near the fountain next to a handwritten sign that reads, “Keep out”.
According to the Tauranga Historical Society, the Memorial Park fountain was unveiled on December 15, 1962, after volunteers gave up 5000 hours of their time over 27 weekends to build it.
The fountain received a $15,000 upgrade in 2009.